Introduction
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3 r After reading Harriet Jacobs’s fugitive slave narrative, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, who has not wondered what happened to her daughter, Louisa? Who can forget the poignant scene when six-year-old “Lulu,” sworn to secrecy by her great-grandmother, is allowed to spend a single night wrapped in the arms of the slave mother she had never known before being taken away to the north by her white father? Louisa never forgot that night and never betrayed her mother. Long after they were reunited in New York—and throughout the rest of her life—she remained silent on their shared history. She was so intensely private that she did not divulge the details of her life even to her closest, oldest friend until 1905, when she was over seventy years old.1 Who did she become, this mixed-race, mixed-place child of the South and grown woman of the North? What did she think, how did she feel, what were her beliefs, who were her friends? If only we could hear her speak, see her smile, understand a bit of her heart. Now we can. New voices call out from the silence of nineteenth-century African American women’s writing. Unidentified for nearly one hundred years, seventy-one rare, personal letters from Louisa Jacobs and Annie Purvis to their friend Genie Webb shed new light on the lives of women of color who created a warm and sympathetic private world in spite of the racist strife that marked their times. By the twentieth century their story of enduring friendship was forgotten. Scholars did not go looking for it because these women were not supposed to exist in a world where letter writing was considered to be the province of educated white women, where scholarship on black women concentrated on slavery, oppression , identity politics, racial uplift, civil rights, and resistance. Through neglect and forgetting, these women’s quiet stories were erased.2 Introduction 4 Introduction Genie Webb is the recipient of all of the letters in this collection, and Louisa Jacobs the main correspondent. What unites Louisa and Genie and Annie Purvis—aside from kinship—is their membership in Philadelphia’s elite black society of the 1850s and 1860s. The city’s “colored aristocracy” fell roughly into three subgroups: freeborn native citizens, descendants of West Indian immigrants , and mixed-race children of the South.3 Louisa, Genie, and Annie belonged to the last group, but Genie and Annie also claimed descent from some of Philadelphia’s earliest free black families dating back to the eighteenth century . Their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles were closely connected with William Lloyd Garrison in the 1830s and lived at the hub of early abolitionism; they were founding members of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, the Library Company for Colored People, the Colored Conventions, and the Vigilance Committee, which was dedicated to aiding fugitive slaves. Louisa, Genie, and Annie grew up in reenergized activism after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 and the Dred Scott case of 1857. They were educated by tutors and in private schools, and they studied French, the classics and mathematics, drawing and painting, botany and physiology. They sang in choirs and played musical instruments; practiced elocution; enjoyed fine music, opera, and oratory; visited museums and science exhibits; and appreciated country walks and visits to the seaside. The men in this society were barbers, caterers, carpenters, tailors, printers, and businessmen. The women were dressmakers , teachers, housekeepers, nurses, and milliners. They were reformers, their families deeply involved in the temperance movement and Underground Railroad work, and, during the war, with the organization of soldiers’ and freedmen ’s aid societies. Wealth was not a prerequisite for membership in Philadelphia ’s black elite society, and neither Genie, Annie, nor Louisa had much in the way of money or property. What mattered most was education and propriety— and, in Genie’s and Annie’s case, an impeccable pedigree. Genie Webb is closely connected to the owners of the only known African American friendship albums: those of her aunt, Mary Virginia Wood Forten; her mother’s adoptive mother, Amy Matilda Cassey; and Martina and Mary Ann Dickerson, whose mother, Delia Dickerson, had been a close friend of Genie’s paternal grandmother.4 Annie Purvis’s mother and her Forten aunts and uncles were frequent contributors to the Wood and Cassey albums. Members of the early...



Subject Headings

  • Jacobs, Louisa Matilda, 1833-1917 -- Correspondence.
  • Purvis, Annie (Harriet Ann), 1848-1917 -- Correspondence.
  • Webb, Eugenie, 1856-1919 -- Correspondence.
  • African American women -- Correspondence.
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